WASHINGTON – The Bush administration welcomed the departure Sunday of one-time ally Jean-Bertrand Aristide from Haiti and put the U.S. military on alert to aid the new government if requested.
A defense official said a contingent of three Navy ships was on standby in Norfolk, Va., awaiting a possible order to head to the waters off Haiti with a group of Marines. Other officials said it was unclear whether the ships would be needed.
The intention was to await an official request by a Haitian government for American military assistance.
In Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, the U.S. ambassador said U.S. and international troops would move in quickly.
One U.S. official said the extent of U.S. military action might be limited to helping the Coast Guard repatriate Haitians who are aboard Coast Guard cutters off the Haitian coast. This official said it appeared unlikely that U.S. military aircraft or personnel would be needed to evacuate Americans in Haiti.
“President Aristide’s decision is in the best interest of the Haitian people,” a senior administration official said after Aristide left Haiti.
But a House member who was deeply involved in restoring Aristide’s elected government to power in 1994, Democrat Charles Rangel of New York, said the United States must shoulder much of the blame for Aristide’s fall and the chaos that brought it on.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but we are just as much as part of this coup d’etat as the rebels, looters or anyone else,” Rangel said on ABC’s “This Week.”
He said while Secretary of State Colin Powell and other administration officials were professing to be negotiating a settlement, “they were making it abundantly clear that Aristide should leave.” One thing is clear, he said: “If you are elected president of a country, don’t count on the United States for support.”
An administration official said Aristide left Haiti at approximately 6:45 a.m. EST, accompanied by members of his security detail. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he could not provide other details because Aristide had not yet arrived at his destination.
There was no immediate reaction from President Bush, who was spending the weekend at Camp David, his retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. He was due back at the White House on Sunday afternoon.
Late Saturday, the White House had ratcheted up pressure on Aristide, whose rule has been marked by violence, corruption and poverty.
“This long-simmering crisis is largely of Mr. Aristide’s making,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in Saturday’s statement. “His failure to adhere to democratic principles has contributed to the deep polarization and violent unrest that we are witnessing in Haiti today.”
McClellan said Aristide’s actions “have called into question his fitness to continue to govern.”
“We urge him to examine his position carefully, to accept responsibility and to act in the best interests of the people of Haiti,” he said.
Some 2,200 U.S. Marines have been on alert while Pentagon officials weighed the possibility of sending troops to waters off Haiti to guard against any flood of refugees and to protect the estimated 20,000 Americans in the Caribbean country.